You can prove anything with evidence.
Reading David Brooks in the NY Times today, I thought of my favorite poem, “Creed,” by Steve Turner. Written a generation ago, it is only more relevant as the days pass. Artists do get there first.
Here are four lines:
“We believe that everything’s getting better
despite evidence to the contrary.
The evidence must be investigated.
You can prove anything with evidence.”
Brooks’ essay is about the meaning of data. While honestly grateful for what data can sometimes provide, he is also critical of giving it absolute authority, of believing its p.r.. He observes:
“Big data has trouble with big problems. If you are trying to figure out which e-mail produces the most campaign contributions, you can do a randomized control experiment. But let’s say you are trying to stimulate an economy in a recession. You don’t have an alternate society to use as a control group. For example, we’ve had huge debates over the best economic stimulus, with mountains of data, and as far as I know not a single major player in this debate has been persuaded by data to switch sides.
“Data obscures values. I recently saw an academic book with the excellent title, “ ‘Raw Data’ Is an Oxymoron.” One of the points was that data is never raw; it’s always structured according to somebody’s predispositions and values. The end result looks disinterested, but, in reality, there are value choices all the way through, from construction to interpretation.”
All this is why I am persuaded that we live out of our hearts. Or as Augustine argued, the question “What do you love?” is the first question, the primary question, as from it everything else comes.
Over the years others have weighed in, adding their voices. The philosopher of law Herman Dooyeweerd wrote about “pre-theoretic commitments,” i.e. that before we theorize, we have already committed ourselves. The scientist Michael Polanyi argued that “the viewer is always viewing,” substantively critiquing the objective/subjective paradigm at the heart of the Enlightenment. The moral philosopher Iris Murdoch maintained that “we can only choose within the world we can see,” so that our vision of what is real and true and right shapes our behavior. And the novelist Walker Percy playfully offered “the qualitative/quantitative ontological lapsometer,” in one fell swoop capturing the pretense of the modern world.
Yes, you can prove anything with evidence—but at the end of the day, that is not really the most important thing. Augustine was right about what matters most, for everyoneeverywhere. The most important question is simply, profoundly, “What do you love?”